The Houston Rockets hadn’t faced hard times — at least not like this.
Sixty-five-win teams don’t deal with loads of adversity. Trouble eluded them throughout the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs. They hadn’t truly been tested.
So this was new territory for this basketball team — the series, the season, actually, in the balance.
One of the most talented teams in league history had stopped the Rockets on 10 straight possessions to open the game.
Finished. Over. Done.
“We just kept fighting,” James Harden said. “Kept fighting.”
Facing the realty that they’d be trailing 3-1, the Rockets looked every bit the part of the NBA’s best team after a nightmare start, out-gritting the Golden State Warriors in a 95-92 victory in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals.
Chris Paul and Harden combined to score 57 points, with Paul adding eight in the fourth quarter. The win stopped Golden State’s NBA record of 16 straight playoff wins at home.
The Rockets recovered from a 12-0 start and a 12-point deficit early in the fourth quarter before their defense — not what Houston wowed the league with — evened the series. The Warriors scored 12 points on three-of-18 shooting in the final quarter, coughing up a big lead and, ultimately, a win.
“This is the highest level of defense we’ve ever played,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said.
Frankly, they hadn’t had to be this good until this point. With Paul and Harden, Houston marched through the regular season without a lot of trouble. D’Antoni remembered a five-game losing streak in late December, a stretch he remembered with the equivalent of a “meh” before Game 4.
But this was different.
They had lost two days ago by an absurd 41-point margin, one of the all-time wallopings in their franchise’s history. Paul had been hampered by a foot injury in Game 3, his trademark quickness slowed significantly. And, Stephen Curry, a sleeping giant in the first two games of the season had erupted.
This was as hard as it has been on Houston all season — and then it got worse.
The game couldn’t have started worse offensively, and still, they didn’t quit, making the Warriors pay for not taking more advantage of the rocky start.
Paul (27 points) and Harden (30) then shot the Rockets back into a 53-46 lead at the half, but that disappeared in a blink when Curry hit shots and danced his way down the court, pushing the Warriors back in front by 10 after three quarters.
“Somebody asked me before the game about our adversity or how do we respond. I think we saw,” D’Antoni said.
“I just trusted our guys,” he later added.
And as the game wore down, so did the players on the court. Six of the 16 players who checked into the game logged at least 40 minutes. Two more played more than 38.
“I felt like in the fourth quarter we just ran out of gas,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said, his team playing without valuable do-it-all wing Andre Iguodala because of a bruised knee.
His absence changed the Warriors’ rotation, forcing rookie Jordan Bell into heavy minutes. Houston, needing a win to save its season, went a different direction, tightening the rotation to just seven players.
With Trevor Ariza, P.J. Tucker, Harden and Chris Paul all over that 40-minute mark, you’d think the Rockets would be the team that was tired. But Harden didn’t even want to hear the word.
“What’s that?” he said when asked about any fatigue.
At the stoppages in play, during the timeouts, D’Antoni scanned his players’ faces for signs of exhaustion. These were, after all, hard times.
“They’re tired. We’re tired,” D’Antoni said. “Now, you’ve got to find the will.”
No one said anything about it. Not with so much at stake. Houston forced a Klay Thompson game-tying try to miss, and a last-gasp Curry shot didn’t beat the buzzer.
Houston found its will.
“That’s a state of mind, man,” Paul said. “We grind all summer long, all season long for these moments. So we push each other.
“Mental toughness is just as important as physical toughness, and I think guys on our team showed that tonight.”